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Border Reivers
Reiver Battles and Feuds
Kindly contributed by Linda Bruce Caron

Whoever won, the border people bore the brunt for almost 300 years - the late 13th century to the middle of the 16th century.

Reiver battles is a subject all to itself. I will just bring you stories of certain of the border men or clans whose escapades have continued to the present day in song and story.

Johnnie Armstrong

When James V became king, one of his objectives was to restore order in his kingdom and to pacify the borders. He commanded an army of 12,000 men. He ordered all earls, lords, barons, freeholders and gentlemen to meet at Edinburgh with a month's supplies, and then to proceed to Teviotdale and Annandale. The nobles were to bring their dogs with them. After hunting for a few days, the King offered safe conduct to Johnnie Armstrong for an audience. John Armstrong was the laird of Kilnockie and was felt by all Scots to be as good a chieftain as there was within the borders, either in Scotland or England. Johnnie Armstrong may have been a loose-living man and although he never molested a Scotsman, he was of such a force that from the Scots border to Newcastle of England there were not many estates who did not pay tribute to him. When Johnnie came into the king's presence there was no trial but a hanging of Johnnie and his men in the trees of Carlanrig churchyard. There is a legend that persists to this day that the trees withered and died and that the same happened to any trees which were planted since. Johnnie and his men would have fought when they realized what was to happen to them but chances are that they were seized and restrained before they could do so. He is said to have shouted to the King. "I have asked grace at a graceless face." His execution weakened James' authority in the borders and was a grave mistake on the King's part.

Dickie Dryhope (an Armstrong)

Hecky Noble was a widow of only a few days when Dickie Dryhope again raided her town driving off 200 head of cattle, destroying nine houses and burning alive Hecky’s son John and daughter-in-law, who was pregnant. A few days earlier he had murdered a miller, burned the mill and twelve houses and reived 100 cattle. Two month earlier he had stolen a woman’s few cattle (18 in number) and rifled her house. This was not uncommon riding. This type of reiving, the raiding of small towns and homes, happened along the Marches almost every day.

Elliot of Larriston

Accustomed to warfare since the days of Edward I, the Borderers had fine tuned their survival techniques over the centuries. Only the hardiest and most alert remained alive. They had acquired an almost sixth sense when it came to foreseeing danger. The early warning system of fires on the hill tops and mounted messengers were effective in time of trouble allowing the Borderer to either scatter to the hills or seek safety in the nearest castle or peel tower. There is a wonderful line in the ballad "Lock the Door, Larriston" saying "The Armstrongs are flying, the widows are crying" This ballad epitomizes and captures the spirit of the border raids.

From "The Lyric Gems of Scotland"

Lock the door, Larriston, Lion of Liddesdale
Lock the door, Larriston, Lowther comes on
The Armstrongs are flying,
The Widows are crying,
The Castleton's burning and Oliver's gone.
Lock the door, Larriston; high in the weather gleam
See how the Saxon plumes bob in the sky -
Yeoman and carbineer,
Billman and halberdier,
Fierce is the foray and far is the cry.

Bewcastle brandishes high his proud scimitar,
Ridley is riding his fleet-foot grey;
Hedley and Howard there,
Wandale and Windermere,
Lock the door, Larriston, hold them at bay.
Why dost thou smile, noble Elliot of Larriston?
Why does the joy-candle gleam in thine eye?
Thou bold border-ranger
Beware of the danger.
Thy foes are relentless, determined, and nigh.

Jock Elliott raised up his steel bonnet and lookit,
His hand grasped the sword with a nervous embrace;
Oh, welcome, brave foemen,
On earth there are no men
More gallant to meet in the fray or the chase.
Little know you of the hearts I have hidden here;
Little know you of our moss trooper's might;
Linhope and Sorbie true,
Tundhope and Milburn too,
Gentle in manner, but lions in fight.

I have Mangerton, Ogilvie, Raeburn, and Metherble,
Old Sim, of Whitram and all his array.
Come all Northumberland,
Teesdale and Cumberland,
Here at the Breeker Tower end shall the fray.
Scowled the broad sun o'er the links of green Liddesdale,
Red as the beacon-light tipped he the wold;
Many a bold martial eye
Mirror'd that morning sky
Never more oped on his orbit of gold.

Shrill was the bugle's note, dreadful the warrior shout,
Lances and halberts in splinters were torn;
Helmet and haubert then
Brav'd the claymore in vain,
Buckler and armlet in shivers were shorn.
See how they wane, the proud files of the Windermere,
Howard ah! Woe to the hopes of the day;
Hear the wild welkin rend,
While the Scots shouts ascend,
Elliot of Larriston! Elliot for aye!


Little Jock Elliot was a member of the same powerful border family, the Elliots of Liddsdale, that Elliot of Larriston was. Little Jock was the one who wounded the Earl of Bothwell, before he became Mary, Queen of Scot's husband. Bothwell was in pursuit of Little Jock and had wounded him in the hip. Bothwell's horse became bogged down and Little Jock seeing this turned his steed, rode back to Bothwell and stabbed him with his dagger. The first duty of Bothwell's supporters were to look after the Earl and Little Jock made his escape. After Little Jock's fight with Bothwell, his fame spread far and wide.

Raid of the Reidswire

At the time of the Reidswire raid Wardens on both sides were conducting meetings which helped bring some semblance of peace to the borders. When these meetings took place it was the accepted practice that a truce would continue until the following sunrise. In the interim no Scot or Englishman could be attacked or arrested. However, as could be expected, the rules were not always followed. The Scottish Warden of the Middle March was Sir John Carmichael and his English counterpart was Sir John Forster, a prominent member of a border family. The two Wardens met at Reidswire on the border. The English party was made up of men from Redesdale and Tynedale, the most lawless of the English Border towns. The Scots were from Roxburgh, Jedburgh and like borderers, English or Scottish, were always ready for a fight. A complaint by a Scots Borderer against an English freebooter was found to be proven. The English Warden, however, said that the man had fled and was not available for punishment. Part of the laws of these courts was that each side would produce the person being accused. The Scots Warden accused the English of not playing fair. Forster's reply showed that he had no regard for Carmichael and he called into question Carmichael's heritage. At this point, the English let fly arrows among the Scots. Peach was almost restored when the Scots fell upon the English, captured Forster and left his deputy dead. A full scale battle erupted and Carmichael was taken prisoner. The English appeared to be winning the fray but a contingent of men from Jedburgh arrived and turned the tide and the day ended in victory for the Scots. Eventually all prisoners were released but this shows that violence was not far from the surface and could erupt for any reason.

The Murder of Parcy Reed

Parcy Reed was the Warden of the Middle March for the English and was a popular figure. He had offended the Hall family in some manner. They pretended friendship for Parcy Reed and awaited their revenge. Reed had taken as prisoner a man named Crozier who also was determined to get revenge. The two families conspired to catch him in a trap. The Halls invited Reed to go hunting. At the end of the hunt, as prearranged, they stopped at a hut in a lonely glen. The Halls poured water into Reed's gunpowder. The Croziers were advancing toward the men and the Halls pretended alarm and fled leaving Reed without any defense. Reed was killed by the Croziers. Because of this treachery the Croziers were driven out of Redesdale. Likewise, the Halls were forced to leave and their name became a byword for treachery. The Borderers valued loyalty above all else and scorned treachery.

Kinmont Willie

Kinmont Willie was a typical Borderer. He was such a notorious reiver that the English were in dread of him. As in Reidswire the Wardens of both sides had declared a truce day. Unlike some truce days, this was a peaceable one and after consideration of the wrongs complained of, the deputy wardens parted and set off for home. Willie Armstrong, aka Kinmont Willie was riding home on one side of a stream that separated the border when he saw 200 English on the other side. The temptation proved too much for the English and they set off at a gallop across the border breaking the truce. Willie tried to out run them but within 3 or 4 miles he was captured and taken to Carlisle Castle. The Scottish Warden wrote a complaint to the English Warden but this did little good. He had been arrested at Truce Day because he otherwise could not have been taken. It seemed that the English attitude was that Kinmont Willie was a known offender, he was in prison that that was all that mattered. Sir Walter Scott of Branxholme, laird of Buccleuch, the Scottish Warden felt that the matter was one of honor and decided to take matters into his own hands. He sent a woman to visit Willie so that he could find out what part of the castle he was being held in and how he was guarded. Long scaling ladders were built to scale the walls. Two hundred horsemen assembled at Willie's home which was in the Debatable Land 10 miles from Carlisle. Buccleuch took only enough men to free Willie but not enough that it would start a war. A few men went ahead as scouts who were followed by 50 or 60 horsemen. Behind them were the main body of men with the ladders, 2 to a horse. They carried pickaxes, sledgehammers, crowbars and whatever they felt they needed to break down walls and gates. They entered England over Graham land and arrived at darkness. They soon found that their ladders were too short to reach the top of the battlements and so they tried to break down the gate. Things seemed to be going well so Buccleuch withdrew with some men to stand between the castle and the town so there would be no interference from the townspeople. The gate was broken down and the gatekeeper was tied up. The party then swiftly found where Willie was being held and broke down the door to his cell. The party sounded a trumpet and made a lot of noise so the defenders of the castle would think that the attackers were much larger than they really were. The defenders locked themselves in and bolted their doors. The castle was now open for plunder but Buccleuch was only there for one reason, to free Kinmont Willie. He released no other prisoners and within two hours of the attack, they were on their way. They returned the way they had come arriving at the river but the Grahams were waiting to ambush them. The Grahams decided that there were too many men and letting discretion be the better part of valor, let the party pass. There is a theory that since Willie was married to a Graham that there was some collusion in the matter. There may have been some collusion with some of the castle defenders also. Kinmont and the Scots forces were back in Scotland safe and sound. The news traveled fast but the report that the English Warden sent to Queen Elizabeth was a wee bit exaggerated. He pushed the figure of the men who freed Willie to 500 and mentioned that because of the rain the guards were either asleep or under cover. He detailed the weapons they had and that they had killed two men and hurt a servant. Buccleuch was sent for by Elizabeth. She asked him, "How dared you undertake such a dangerous and presumptuous venture?" Buccleuch boldly replied, "What does a man not dare to do?" She was taken with this reply and answered: "With ten thousand such men our brother of Scotland might shake the firmest throne in Europe." Buccleuch, the bold, returned from Scotland and nothing more was said of the venture.

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